There’s cause for celebration in the medical community, as a small but significant step may have been taken in the battle against cancer through immunology. The news was released during the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington DC.

There, Doctor Stan Riddell of the Seattle based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center announced an unprecedented success in a trial treating terminally ill blood cancer sufferers, with 90% of patients going into remission. But what is it, and what does this mean for medicine?

 

What is Immunology?

Immunology is the branch of medicine that focuses on the immune system. Our immune system is made up of structures and processes in the body that protect us from infection, and work to fight against diseases. The utilisation of the immune system as a treatment is called immunotherapy. With far fewer side effects than chemotherapy, it is a method of treatment that is full of potential and is constantly being researched and developed.

 

How Immunotherapy Works

There are many different types of immunotherapy, and since it is still an area in development, working out the most effective way to create such a treatment is the main focus of research labs all over the globe.

However, the method used by Dr. Riddell and his team in their study is as follows:

T-Cells, (a type of lymphocyte/ white blood cell that seeks out and destroys invading cells in the body) are taken from the bloodstreams of the patients involved, and are then ‘reprogrammed’ in the lab. This means they are genetically engineered with chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) which allow them to detect, target and destroy specific tumour cells bearing the particular target, in this case: the cells causing acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Because the T-Cells can multiply when they are inserted back into the body, one dose of these genetically engineered cells is all that is necessary to be effective.

In other words, the white blood cell is taught what the cancerous cells look like, and then released back into the body where it is able to do what it does best and destroy the invader(s).

 

The Results

According to Dr. Riddell the results were astounding. In one of the studies, 27 out of 29 patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia showed no trace of cancer in their bone marrow after a dose of the infusion. In another study, a reported 19 out of 30 non-Hodgkin Lymphoma patients taking part went into partial or complete remission. In other patients, scans even seemed to show tumours being shrunk as a result of the immunotherapy.

 

What this Means for Medicine

While the results are exciting and seem to signal a new age of medicine, doctors are urging that this area of science is still in its infancy. The patients in Dr. Riddell’s study suffered from cancers which generally react well to conventional methods of treatment, such as chemotherapy, and therefore its apparent ability to treat some types of blood cancer may not make as much of an impact as one might assume. It is also important to note that although most of the patients responded well to the treatment, seven were reported to have developed severe cytokine release syndrome, with two patients dying as a result

However, it is agreed that there is great potential in immunotherapy, and with possible uses for it including the treatment of ‘solid cancers’ such as lung and breast cancer amongst others, scientists and doctors will continue to research and experiment in the field.